Thursday, February 18, 2010

The arrival of Christianity in Taiwan

I wrote the following for the religions section of the textbook and now realise it's too long and detailed. But waste not want not...

Christianity arrived in Taiwan in the 17th century with the Spanish and the Dutch. Missionaries working among the indigenous people in the south had some success, but the religion’s roots were too shallow to survive the viciously anti-Christian regimes of Koxinga and his son. The missionaries who arrived in the second half of the 19th century had to start again from scratch in the face of public hostility often abetted, occasionally restrained, by local officials. Father Fernando Sainz (1832-1895) arrived in 1859 managed to establish Roman Catholic churches in Kaohsiung and the countryside. In 1865 the Scotsman James L. Maxwell (1836-1921) founded the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, the denomination considered Taiwan’s most influential on account of its links with the Hoklo gentry. Maxwell’s first attempt to establish a hospital in Tainan resulted in his being driven from the town by angry locals who believed he was cutting up bodies to make opium.

The Japanese colonial authorities allowed foreign church-planters a more or less free hand until the late 1930s, when growing hostility between Japan and the West caused almost all North Americans and Europeans to leave the island. Since 1945, in terms both of laws and public attitudes, Taiwan has been one of the most missionary-friendly societies in the world. After the Communist victory on the Chinese mainland there was an influx of missionaries who’d been serving there but who’d been ordered out by the new regime. Among them was Gladys Aylward (1902-1970), the Londoner whose wartime exploits inspired the 1958 Hollywood film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. She’s buried just outside Taipei. In recent years several foreign priests have been decorated by the government for their educational and medical work. Churches continue to occupy some very prominent locations in the cities and dozens of denominations – including some homegrown ones – are active. Despite this, only about 3% of the island’s Han population is Christian. One major reason is that many Taiwanese of Han descent still regard ancestor worship as a core duty and see relatives who do not take part in such rites as disrespectful towards their forebears. Among the aborigines, conversion efforts have been much more successful – more than half the indigenous population is Protestant and a significant minority is Roman Catholic.


  1. You forgot to mention George Mackay (unless that was part of the included section of the textbook)

  2. Don't worry, Mackay will be in the book! Thanks for reading.